Irish universities and salary top-ups
Topping up the salaries of senior executives is not in vogue right now, as is well known. In the Celtic Tiger years in Ireland, however, it was not unusual, and universities were not particularly exceptions. According to figures now released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Ireland’s seven universities spent a total of €7.2 million on unauthorised top-ups between 2005 and 2011, and the Authority has now declared that it is withholding half of this amount, albeit on a phased basis, from the institutional grants until that sum has been repaid. The other half will have to be spent by the universities on student services.
The university most affected by this will be University College Dublin, which will have €1.6 million withheld; the one least affected is my former university, Dublin City University, with €27,000 being withheld (and in this case, as it covers a period during which I was President, I might add that the sum in question had been authorised by the HEA, but never mind).
I might say right away that I am totally opposed to salary top-ups; these fail all kinds of tests, including obvious transparency and fairness tests. I did not allow any such payments in DCU (the small top-up mentioned above was decided and authorised before my time as President). However, one might still question what is being done by the HEA. First, I am of the view that payments and salaries in universities should be controlled by their governing bodies, not by the government. Secondly, even if top-ups are wrong (as I think they are), withholding a sum of money as ‘punishment’ is an entirely counter-productive response. The first time, when the top-ups were paid, the money in question was in essence removed from the funds available to resource teaching and student support; now the HEA is removing these sums (or half of them) for a second time from students by withholding them from institutional grants; that makes no sense to me.
As the government itself believes, top-up payments are no longer made anywhere in the Irish university system. That is really a good bit of progress. Punishing current students for excessive payments made to senior staff in the past is much more doubtful. What the story does tell us, however, is that universities need to be open and transparent in how they pay staff, and senior staff in particular.